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A letter from Doug and Elaine Baker in Northern Ireland

March 10, 2009

Update from Northern Ireland

Staring into the abyss?
Dissident Republicans carry out fatal attacks

On Saturday night the 7th of March gunmen shot dead two British soldiers just outside the gate of Massereene Barracks in Antrim. Two other soldiers and two pizza delivery men were injured. Responsibility for the attack was later claimed by the “Real IRA,” one of a number of small splinter groups that do not accept the Belfast Agreement signed in 1998 and the wider peace process embraced by Sinn Fein and the much larger Provisional IRA. Last night, March 9th, a policeman was also shot dead in Craigavon, in what appears to have been a further attack by “dissident” Republicans. These are the first fatal attacks on either army of police officers in Northern Ireland for over a decade.

Unequivocal condemnation of the shootings has been issued by all major political parties, including Sinn Fein, the mainline Republic faction. Church leaders have also provided leadership by giving voice to the widespread public revulsion. And there appears to be wisdom all around in calling for steady measured political leadership and measured security responses to these developments. Nonetheless, these two events have generated huge fear about what else might lie ahead. After the Craigavon shooting last night one local politician said “We are staring into the abyss.”

The two soldiers killed were members of the 38 Engineer Regiment stationed at Massereene Barracks in the town of Antrim, 20 miles northwest of Belfast. The regiment was not on duty patrolling Northern Ireland. In fact, they were within hours of being deployed to Afghanistan when the attack occurred. The soldiers’ personal belongings had already been loaded for departure, and they were dressed in desert fatigues for their new location. Some of them decided to order pizza from a local shop for the last time before departing for Helmand Province. When two delivery vans arrived several soldiers stepped a short distance outside the gate to receive their order. They were off duty and unarmed. Within seconds, a third car pulled up and two gunmen opened fire with automatic weapons on both the soldiers and the delivery men. Reports from survivors say the gunmen then walked over to where the injured soldiers lay and fired at them again at close range. The whole attack was over in about 30 seconds. Two soldiers were killed (aged 21 and 23), two seriously injured. One of the pizza delivery men who was seriously injured is a local teenager doing a part-time job. The other very seriously injured man is a Polish national who had moved to Northern Ireland with his partner and 16-month-old child to find work.

Within hours, responsibility for the attack was claimed by the South East Antrim unit of the “Real IRA,” one of several small splinter groups that broke away from the Provisional IRA in the late 1990s. These “dissident Republicans” reject the Northern Ireland Peace Process, view Sinn Fein leaders such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness as traitors and continue to view violent force as the best way to bring about the political change they desire on this island. They do not have large numbers of active members, and they have very little public support in the communities out of which they operate. However, as these attacks show, it only takes a handful of individuals to carry out atrocities that can impact a whole society.

It is believed that “dissident Republican” groups, such as the Real IRA, the Continuity IRA, the INLA and Oglaigh na hEireann operate in small cells without a central command structure. Many, but not all, of their members were previously in and trained within the Provisional IRA. The same individuals may at times operate under different dissident banners, and it is believed that there is sharing of resources and expertise between these factions. In recent years, they have shot at and injured police, planted incendiary bombs that have caused millions of pounds of damage to business premises and left car bombs — which have not gone off — in various settings.

For months the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Sir Hugh Orde, has warned that the risk of violence from dissident Republicans has been serious. About three weeks ago they abandoned a 300-pound car-bomb near the village of Castlewellan. Although it did not reach its target or go off, it was more sophisticated than other devices the Real IRA has left in recent years. In light of that and intelligence reports, the chief constable raised the security warning to “severe.” He had also called in a special undercover army intelligence unit. The professionalism of the gun attacks in Antrim and Craigavon, along with the more sophisticated bomb near Castlewellan may indicate that the dissidents have recently recruited to their ranks one or more highly skilled individuals, presumably disenchanted with the direction being taken by Sinn Fein, the Provisional IRA and the Northern Ireland Peace Process.

Given the severe threat warning, an attack by dissidents did not come as a huge surprise, but the location in Antrim did. In contrast, last night’s fatal shooting of a policeman in Craigavon occurred in one of the settings where an attack by dissidents had been forecast.

Police received a malicious report of damage to a private home. Some time later, two police vehicles arrived to investigate. When officers stepped out of the vehicles a sniper shot one of them dead. It appears to have been a pre-meditated ambush. Stephen Carroll leaves a wife and children.

Political reaction to both events has been united. Although Sinn Fein were initially criticized for taking hours to issue any statement about the Antrim killings, leading figures have not only condemned these incidents but also called on their supporters in Republican communities to supply the police with any information which may be helpful in apprehending those responsible. Sinn Fein leaders have repeatedly said that the dissidents have virtually no support in the communities out of which they operate and that these are attacks on the peace process and on the Irish people, who — North and South — voted overwhelmingly for the Belfast Agreement and in so doing endorsed Sinn Fein’s strategy of working now for change through political means rather than continued force.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness acknowledged that he had supported the violence of the Provisional IRA and had been a member of it himself, but went on to say that “that war is over and I deny the right of these folks to drag us back into it.”

Naturally, both the British prime minister and Unionist (pro-British) politicians from Northern Ireland condemned the attack. Thankfully, though, Unionist politicians have also consistently said that the proper course to take is steady, measured political leadership and measured security responses. They know that dissidents want to bring the British Army back onto the streets of Northern Ireland and provoke Loyalist paramilitaries into a confrontation which will generate support for their style of violent Republicanism again — and the politicians have learned through the long years of “the Troubles” that heavy-handed responses to violence against the communities from which small terror groups operate ends up recruiting more people into those groups. In particular, Dawn Purvis, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, which has links to the illegal Loyalist UVF paramilitary group, clearly and articulately urged that Loyalists not engage in any form of retaliation, as it would be counterproductive.

Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern also called the Antrim killings an attack on the Irish people, whose will has been expressed democratically for a peace process operating through democratic political institutions.

Local people in Antrim have shown their revulsion by laying scores of floral tributes at the site of the shooting, and on Sunday morning clergy and members form the local Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland, Methodist and Presbyterian congregations converged on the site immediately after morning services for united prayers and a show of solidarity with and sympathy for those bereaved and injured.

These dark incidents have forced people here to stare once again into the abyss and see what catastrophic suffering could be unleashed by any return to cycles of revenge or by the belief that it is OK to pursue our political ambitions through murderous violence or by the foolish temptation to use harsh security measures to root out violence by small extremist organizations. There is also hope to be taken from the response shown: unity amongt politicalleaders in denouncing such violence rather than any point-scoring against each other in the wake of such horrific murders, church leaders taking the lead quickly in providing healing gatherings that enable ordinary people to stand together rather than view each other with suspicion and political, army and police leaders not getting sucked into harsh security responses that would be counterproductive. These are difficult and stormy days, but I do believe the Northern Ireland peace process is robust enough to weather them.

Please pray for those bereaved and injured, those shocked by these events and those who must maintain helpful leadership in their wake.

Doug Baker

The 2009 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 171

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